Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Freak of Nature: Jurassic World

Bryce Dallas Howard, Chris Pratt, Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins in Jurassic World.

A summer blockbuster that toys with self-awareness is a living oxymoron, like an advertisement that reminds you it’s an advertisement in an attempt to disarm and charm you, while still asking for your money. It’s all too rare that a huge, studio-led tentpole film – especially a sequel in a “classic” franchise – can have its cake and eat it, too. Jurassic World does its damndest, though, and though it’s as cobbled together from disparate genetic material as the dinos it portrays, it manages through sheer, fitful effort to shuffle off its obligations and expectations and deliver an ultimately satisfying spectacle. Life – or in this case, director Colin Trevorrow – found a way.

Ordinarily I’d be quick to condemn Jurassic World’s willingness to discard previous franchise efforts in order to connect with the original, more beloved material (World pretends The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1998) and Jurassic Park 3 (2001) never happened, and presumes to act as a direct sequel to the 1993 original Jurassic Park). This is an annoying trend that doesn’t do much beyond confusing the audience, and seems to me like a self-righteous insinuation on the part of the filmmakers: an admission that, “Hey, those sequels were pretty crappy, right? We admit that. But our film – no, our film’s just like the original! You loved that one, right?”

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not about to jump to the defense of the loathsome Jurassic Park 3 – but this attitude is dangerous, and does a disservice to material that, while flawed, was due to hard work by dedicated craftspeople and artists. Pretending their films never existed strikes me as a cheap and ungracious self-promotion tactic. That said, Jurassic World uses it to full effect, and I can’t help but admire their results: they expand on the original premise of a billionaire who dabbles irresponsibly with powerful cloning technology in order to create a dinosaur theme park, and take this idea to its logical next step. For the first time, we’re treated to a fully-functional park on Isla Nublar, and the high-stakes thrills when it inevitably succumbs to chaos. If The Lost World and JP3 had really never happened, this premise is exactly what I would have wanted from a sequel to Jurassic Park.

Bryce Dallas Howard and Chris Pratt in Jurassic World.

World takes place 22 years after the original debacle on Isla Nublar, where billionaire Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan) has realized John Hammond’s dream and built a functional, profitable dinosaur theme park there, operated by Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard). Claire’s nephews, Zach and Gray Mitchell (Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins, respectively) travel to the island to visit their aunt, who neglects them because she’s too preoccupied with convincing Masrani and Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), a dinosaur trainer, that her genetically-modified hybrid creature – what she calls the “Indominus Rex” – is ready for the public. Vic Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio) and chief geneticist Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong, the only member of the original cast to return) hover around the edges of the story, working with Hammond’s company InGen to realize their goal of weaponizing the park’s attractions, until everyone’s worst fears are realized and the Indominus escapes and all hell breaks loose, et cetera, et cetera.

That Jurassic Park’s special effects (led by gurus like Stan Winston, Phil Tippet, and Dennis Muren) were revolutionary hardly bears repeating here – but the fruits of their labour, 22 years later, are self-evident on screen. The early CGI work that helped to create the indelible (and wholly convincing) image of a Tyrannosaur stomping through the rain has now become industry-standard, so World faces a unique challenge in that no matter how lifelike the movement, skin texture and lighting of their CGI creations are – as Claire so pointedly puts it to her shareholders – “nobody’s impressed by dinosaurs anymore.” So Trevorrow’s only recourse was to double down on the spectacle, discarding the distinctly Spielbergian tone of awe and wonder and humility of Jurassic Park and replacing it with a fully-realized postmodern blockbuster, brimming with eye-popping visuals and super-sized cynicism and self-awareness (the elevator pitch for the film was apparently the image of a child with their back to the tyrannosaur paddock, more interested in their smartphone than the prehistoric miracle behind them). This has the effect of distancing the audience from the warm, fuzzy Amblin-era satisfactions of the original film, but I believe it was the right move: World has much to say about modern consumer culture, childhood in an internet age, and the prevalence of sequels and reboots (which, again, feels a bit disingenuous – sure, it’s fun that you have a character who wears a Jurassic Park t-shirt and moans about how much better the first park was, but acknowledgment of your film’s problems don’t also count as solutions to those problems). Still, I prefer that World forges its own identity, rather than trying too hard to replicate the thrills of a decades-old film.

And thrills are something that World offers in heaping helpings. The trailers, of course, don’t do justice to the clever plotting that arranges the film’s truly spectacular set-pieces – even the ridiculous image of Pratt leading a pack of raptors on his motorcycle makes perfect sense in context. The raptors, however – arguably the main sources of tension and horror in the first film – play second fiddle to Indominus Rex in World, whose unchained, bloodthirsty appetite for carnage fuels most of the movie’s scares, and had everyone in my screening jumping out of their seats and cheering loudly. Ultimately, you see this sort of film for the visceral thrills and chills of a classic monster movie, and in that most crucial regard, Jurassic World excels.

The two young brothers and the reappearance of InGen are the only elements that feel truly misplaced (the half-baked Gray and Zach’s “being nearly eaten by dinosaurs brings us closer together” arc feels painfully constricted) or incomplete (like Dr. Wu, whose deft ethical sidestepping and ties to the overtly megalomaniacal InGen are more focused on setting up a sequel than in presenting concrete motivation in the here and now). And while Gray and Zach can’t match Lex and Tim for memorability, the rest of the cast is pitch-perfect: Howard’s Claire is shaken loose from her rigid and austere persona into a likeable survivor, and Chris Pratt earns his superstar status with a performance that’s part Muldoon and part Ian Malcolm, with a dash of Indiana Jones for flavour (when Gray remarks to Claire that “your boyfriend’s a badass,” as he zips by on his Triumph in pursuit of a raptor pack, you can’t help but grin and agree).

It’s entirely appropriate that in the realm of Indominus Rex, where we are constantly surrounded by wonder and still crave more, bigger, faster, better pleasures, World can subvert its own corporate culture symbolism and deliver a fun, terrifying flick that actually justifies its dismissal of the franchise’s lesser sequels. It’s a mangled freak of nature that both embraces and denies its lineage, but its poking references to the original film and to the Hollywood climate in which it lives never cloy, and in fact make it a cleverer blockbuster than most. Add some fine performances and a great deal of genuinely nail-biting dinosaur suspense, and despite its problematic elements, Jurassic World earns its place next to its progenitor.

 – Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.     

1 comment:

  1. Nice review, and an angle I hadn't seen before.